Retribution: Lessons from the Anti-Saloon League, Part One

Power in politics comes from the ability to destroy. The ability to take out an incumbent or end politicians’ careers if they cross you is how a group gains the power to influence policy in America. The Anti-Saloon League understood this concept well and used it to become one of the most powerful pressure groups in American history.

The league started in 1893 and by 1920, had led the fight to accomplish the difficult task of passing the 18th Amendment, mandating the prohibition of alcohol's manufacture and sale. ASL founder Howard Russell understood the importance of retribution.
"The Anti-Saloon League,” Russell said, “is formed for the purpose of administering political retribution.”

This is from an excellent “Smithsonian” magazine article, “Wayne B. Wheeler: The Man Who Turned Off the Taps,” which examined how the Anti-Saloon League managed to become so politically powerful and achieve the impressive feat of pushing through the 18th Amendment. Wheeler was a member of the ASL executive council and its head Washington, DC lobbyist.

It is important not to underestimate how politically powerful the Prohibition movement was for a time and what a monumental achievement it is to pass a Constitutional amendment. It was able to get three-quarters of state legislatures to pass the 18th Amendment in 394 days. The ASL also went directly against and effectively killed what was the fifth-largest industry in the nation. Wheeler was the man Senators feared to cross.

The Anti-Saloon League understood that the carrot is important but the stick is critical. That, to quote Machiavelli, it is “safer to be feared than loved.” If you want to affect policy, you need to make those with the power--legislatures and governors in both parties--fear for their political careers if they cross you.

In 1905, the popular Ohio Republican Gov. Myron T. Herrick worked to make some changes to a local prohibition bill. The ASL organized more than 300 anti-Herrick rallies and mobilized supporters against him. Herrick was defeated, in a good year for Republicans.

Anyone running for office can promise interest groups to support their cause. Campaign promises are easy and cheap because politicians running for office don't pass bills, only those already in office do. If you want your goals to be realized, sitting politicians must fear, more than anything else, retribution from failing to deliver to your group. This inherent understanding was part of Wheeler's political genius. As he once told a friend:
“We are teaching these crooks that breaking their promises to us is surer of punishment than going back on their bosses, and some day they will learn that all over the United States—and we’ll have national Prohibition.”

If you want to be part of a successful political movement, you should study past, successful movements to understand how they gained power and achieved their goals. The Anti-Saloon League was for a time one of the most successful American interest groups ever. Studying it provides modern political movements with several lessons. The most important is that real power comes from the ability to administer political retribution. It is not just the ability to help people get elected but the cunning to take out those who have crossed you.

Take a moment to picture the big political groups that have been effective at advancing legislation, like the NRA. That’s an organization politicians fear.

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